acrylic on canvas
During the 20th Century, the U.S government sterilized thousands of Latina and Native American women against their will. These women had no choice and no voice.
Who gave the United States government permission to invade women’s bodies? Isn’t a woman wonderfully and beautifully created? Isn’t motherhood a beautiful experience regardless of race and class?
Yet sterilization abuse is prevalent throughout American history. Soon after the United States had governance over Puerto Rico, officials claimed that the island was overpopulated. If the population continued to increase, they argued, the island would experience substantial social and economic turmoil.
Does the government actually think that invading a women’s body will decrease population rates and increase economic stability?
In 1937, Law 116 exaggerated the need for a population control program, utilizing sterilization to maintain the birth rate as well as economic growth. This “theory” of sterilizing women to create a stable economic system proved false; the island continued to experience economic turmoil and still does to this day.
The United States government outright denied women access to reproductive health services. Puerto Ricans lacked the proper information on alternatives aside from sterilization. The government tricked these women, cutting some without their consent or burning those who intended for their tubes to be tied.
Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias, M.D., summarized the situation in Puerto Rico: “Women make choices based on alternatives, and there haven’t been many alternatives in Puerto Rico.”
The government’s most mischievous form of issuing sterilization was a door-to-door visit by health workers. Eventually in Puerto Rico, sterilization became known as “la operacion,” giving it an infamous sound.
In 1968, more than one-third of women didn’t comprehend that sterilization through tubal ligation and tube tying was not just a form of contraception but an irreversible procedure.
In 1984, director Ana Maria Garcia produced a film called “La Operacion.” This film captures the history of sterilization in Puerto Rico. There are both gory scenes of women under the knife and intimate personal interviews. Garcia includes the scenes for a reason, “to prevent ‘sterilization from degenerating into a concept or an intellectualization’” (Stafford, Kimberly). Garcia desires viewers to fully comprehend the devastating effects of forced sterilization. The operation left many Puerto Rican women ashamed and confused. When they discovered the role of the U.S government, they felt betrayed and furious.
The film doesn’t so much center around sterilization as it does on the United States’ enforced policies to lower unemployment, decrease social tensions, rapidly industrialize, build inadequate housing, and maintain poor nutrition, sub-standard healthcare and education.
Puerto Rico wasn’t the only country that suffered population control and forced sterilization. A law similar to Law 116 was also passed throughout 30 states in the U.S, legalizing the right to sterilize unwilling, insane, ill and ignorant people.
This translated to the forced sterilization of low-income white, African American and Native American women.
In the early 1970s, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 low-income individuals were annually subjected to sterilization under federally funded programs. As of 1982, 15 percent of white women had been sterilized, compared with 24 percent of African-American women, 35 percent of Puerto Rican women, and 42 percent of Native American women (DeFine, Micheal Sullivan).
Native American women were especially targeted for sterilization. In an article written by Jane Lawrence, The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women, two 15-year-old women entered an Indian Health Service Hospital in Montana for two appendectomies. Instead, they were sterilized and would never be able to have children. The doctor had sterilized them without their consent and their parents weren’t informed.
Dr. Connie Uri, a Choctaw Indian Physician at an Oklahoma Indian Health Service, noticed the increase in sterilization procedures and began an investigation. She interviewed sterilized women, discovering that many had been sterilized in the hospital after their child was conceived. According to Dr. Uri, 48 women were sterilized within the month of July 1974 alone.
Aside from forced sterilization after childbirth, many young women of childbearing age were sterilized by hysterectomies and tubal ligation. In most cases, these weren’t necessary procedures. Health workers would threaten and harass women into becoming sterilized. Once again, many women were deceived into believing that after the operation they would be able to have children.
This is a subject of great concern within the Native American community because the U.S government has long ignored and mistreated them. The idea of sterilization for population control was pointless, resulting in nothing more than cultural genocide and hundreds of angry Native American women.
Eventually, in 1974, the Department of Health and Human Services published guidelines for sterilization under the age of 21 involving proper consent, a 72-hour waiting period from the time you have written consent to when the procedure was authorized. In addition, women received official written statements that they would not lose their welfare benefits. Lastly, a woman was free to refuse sterilization even after her original consent.
Although sterilization has decreased, women are still denied proper contraceptive alternatives.
Women who were sterilized against their own will encourage us to continue to value and protect our bodies. No man, no higher force, no government should ever be invited to invade our bodies without our consent. Never.
article by Susana Medina